RSA 2009: Darwinian Medicine and Feeding Hormones

Today was the last day of the conference. The planning committee certainly expected everyone to be burned out from a week of seminars, plenaries, and poster viewings spanning a good 10 hours of a day. To mitigate this, the morning’s speaker was an expert in Darwinian medicine from the University of Michigan, Randolph Neese, who recently co-authored a book, Why We Get Sick. He was jovial, comical, and most importantly, assuaged any hesitations about awaking at 7AM on the last day of the conference for another talk. He assumed everyone in the room was friends for this reason. Through Darwinian medicine, which was an extraterrestrial field of research to many members of the audience, including myself (what the frack is Darwinian medicine?!), Neese explained how changes in lifestyles, genetic drift and mutations, eating habits, and characteristics of pathogens have predisposed certain groups and individuals to alcohol dependence. Oh, he also saturated his talk with Far Side cartoons for an added bonus.

Following his talk, the posse of researchers from Brown University who study the neuroendocrinology of feeding behaviors and assoicated predispositions to alcoholism presented very interesting data. Some of the basic hormones and neuropeptides that mediate hunger and satiety–ghrelin/thyroid hormones and leptin/insulin, respectively, are intricately tied to the central reward circuit of the brain, and hence, stimulate dopamine: the neurotransmitter with addictive properties. The researchers hope to discover a drug that will modulate the release of each of these hormones, neuropeptides, and assoicated compounds and subsequently, curtail alcohol dependence. My lab mate suggested a cheaper and healthier alternative: exercise. The researchers agreed that exercise may help, but remember, many of these researchers are consultants for pharmaceutical companies. By suggesting that exercise is an effective, nonpharmacological treatment for eating disorders and associated alcohol abuse, they wouldn’t have a job, and I wouldn’t receive an Italian leather bound notebook made in Italy at next year’s meeting.

 The conference ended with a banquet accompanied with wine at the table. Yes, even stuffy researchers who investigate the epidemiology, physiology, and neurobiology of alcoholism, aren’t disinclined to enjoy a drink (or two). To quote Neese, “what is wrong with our species?!”

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